The Kids Are Still Not Alright

Despite public scrutiny, abuse continues at the state's juvenile corrections facilities

 Editor's note: The names of juveniles have been changed to protect their privacy.

Last January, Gail Edwards got a message on her answering machine from a nurse at Adobe Mountain School, the state juvenile detention facility in north Phoenix where her son Scott was then living.

"Your son was in a fight, but he's okay," the nurse told Edwards. A week later, Scott called his mother to tell her he'd been taken to a hospital emergency room by ambulance.

A girl at Black Canyon School shares her experiences with visitors.
Dan Huff
A girl at Black Canyon School shares her experiences with visitors.
ADJC spokesman Steve Meissner refuses to discuss specific cases of alleged abuse.
Steve Granitz/Rogers & Cowan
ADJC spokesman Steve Meissner refuses to discuss specific cases of alleged abuse.

Details

More stories in the Slammed Series

Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections staff told Edwards that Scott tipped over a bookcase, giving himself a superficial wound to the back of the head. But the hospital records Edwards later requested better match Scott's version of events: that an ADJC staff member punched him in the eye, and slammed his head into a concrete wall.

Scott is seriously mentally ill, Edwards says. He has been in and out of ADJC facilities since 1998, when he stole a car from his foster family and crashed it. He could no longer live at home, his mother says, because he was violent toward family members as a result of abuse he suffered as a child.

But Gail Edwards worries Scott is getting worse, not better, under ADJC's care. While in state custody, he set his cell on fire. Edwards wonders how he got ahold of the materials to do so. She says he's been propositioned by an ADJC staff member, and wonders how that was allowed to happen as well. She worries that as his 18th birthday -- and instant freedom -- approaches, Scott has no life skills. And she says his mental illness is going untreated.

"My son's going to get out and the best thing the juvenile corrections system has prepared him for is the adult corrections system," Edwards says.

She should know. Not only is she a parent, Gail Edwards is the owner/director of the Edwards Hall Charter School in Cottonwood, a school designed specifically for troubled teenagers. Many of her students are in and out of ADJC. She knows mistakes can happen, Edwards says, but ADJC should discipline its staff if necessary.

Unlike many parents of kids in state custody, Edwards keeps tabs on her son -- as best she can -- and is demanding answers to her questions about his care. She wrote to Governor Jane Dee Hull in October, informing her of the alleged assault on Scott and ADJC's subsequent shoddy response. She got a letter back more than a month later from George Weisz, Hull's deputy chief of staff, telling her he'd look into it and asking for more information.

"It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to go and pull those medical records and say, 'Something wasn't right,'" Edwards says, adding that she's totally frustrated.

She's not the only one. In July, more than 30 community leaders wrote to Hull, requesting that she create a task force to look into ADJC, after a New Times special report revealed deteriorating conditions within ADJC facilities, including kids who are routinely held in solitary confinement for days, sometimes even months, staff members who use violence to control kids, and an education system that likely violates state and federal law.

The "Slammed" series ("The Kids Are NOT Alright," "Kid Row" and "Welcome to the Hotel Arizona," July 5, and "Learning Disorder," December 13) relied on thousands of documents and numerous interviews with current and former staff, as well as kids who had been in custody and their parents, to detail how Arizona's youth corrections system has declined since 1998, when a federal court order requiring that the department be monitored expired.

The court order came as a result of a 1987 class-action lawsuit, Johnson v. Upchurch, that stemmed from a case in which a boy was held in solitary confinement for several weeks. Similar situations have arisen in the past four years, New Times reported. The stories included evidence of physical, sexual and verbal abuse of juvenile detainees by staff, inadequate mental health services, and instances where kids were kept in detention far longer than their recommended time of stay.

The community leaders' letter to Hull asked for a review of "conditions of confinement, length of stay determination and aftercare services throughout ADJC." It requested that the majority of task force members come from outside ADJC.

Almost six months later, Jan Christian, the former executive director of the Governor's Select Commission and Task Force on Juvenile Corrections, who headed the letter-writing group, has heard nothing from Hull.

Russell Van Vleet, a Utah-based juvenile corrections consultant with 30 years in the business -- including several as one of the monitors of the 1993 federal court order imposed on ADJC facilities -- also signed the letter. He also has heard nothing from Hull.

Van Vleet says he did hear from the U.S. Department of Justice, which has a special division devoted to investigating civil rights violations at juvenile corrections facilities. He was asked to put together a package of material about Arizona, which he did; he hasn't heard back. Others in the juvenile justice community say they've heard from the Justice Department, too, although the federal agency refuses to confirm or deny an investigation.

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